Germans undermine Major

Kohl aims to frustrate Tory election plans on Europe
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The Independent Online
The German government is now working actively to undermine John Major, and believes that Europe must wait for Tony Blair to become Prime Minister before progress can be made on European co-operation.

A senior adviser to Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, has told the Independent: "We have known for a long time that it will be hard to make more progress with this government. Now we are surer than ever that we must wait for Tony Blair."

But, in a dramatic move which will prolong bad-tempered relations with other EU countries, Mr Major intends to make domestic political capital from the repercussions of the beef row. He believes German warmth towards Mr Blair will backfire on Labour.

The German strategy is to try to stop Mr Major gaining domestic popularity on European issues: diplomats took a hard line at the Florence summit to avoid the kinds of concessions which the British Government could present as a triumph.

The harder line against Britain will become clear at a mini-summit to be held in Dublin in October on the Inter-Governmental Conference, which is rewriting the Maastricht treaty. Britain's partners look set to redouble their efforts to reduce the national veto, which will reinforce Britain's isolation. "The beef war has been very nasty, it will not be forgotten," said a senior German source. Germany's strategy to prevent Mr Major winning domestic support as a result of the European debate was deliberately deployed in the negotiations on the beef agreement.

German officials were instructed by Bonn to ensure that nothing in the final truce at Florence could be used by Mr Major for domestic political advantage, said the sources.

Mr Major believes the EU's attempt to punish him for his intransigence over beef by speeding up the timetable for revising the Maastricht treaty will play into his hands by ending the "shadow boxing" over the EU's future. It was thought that the unexpected plan to draw up a text of a revised treaty this autumn would be awkward for the Government, because it would underline Britain's isolation in Europe. However, Mr Major's advisers say he intends to use the draft treaty to contrast his policy on Europe with Mr Blair's, in a way that he believes will work to Tory advantage in the run-up to a general election.

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday promised more conflict over a European Court of Justice ruling which is expected to confirm the imposition of a maximum 48-hour week for many workers.

In strong language calculated to offend other EU countries, he described the original directive as a "disgrace", which attempted to get round Britain's Social Chapter opt-out. But he ruled out suggestions the Government might refuse to abide by the court's decision.

"We obey the law. We are a party and a Government that believes in the rule of law," Mr Rifkind said. The Government would use its "significant amount of leverage" in talks on the revision of the Maastricht treaty to try to get the working-hours law reclassified under the Social Chapter - which would not apply to Britain.

He also dismissed suggestions that the EU would seek to punish Britain for its non-cooperation policy by imposing new sanctions against any country which applies such blocking tactics in the future. The Belgian Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, yesterday suggested withholding payments from EU budgets to non-cooperating member states. But Mr Rifkind insisted that such a change would require treaty amendments which Britain could veto.

Tory backbench critics are expected to hold their fire today when Mr Major makes a statement to the Commons about the settlement of the beef dispute, although one leading right-winger said privately he felt he had been "marched down the hill again by the Grand Old Duke of York".

Speaking at the end of the Florence summit on Saturday, Mr Major welcomed the prospect of battles over the erosion of the national veto, the powers of the European Court of Justice, and the Social Chapter. Implicitly dismissing the idea of an autumn election, he said: "I very much welcome the decision to seek to bring forward a draft treaty text for discussion at Dublin in December ... The sooner we can actually see the substantive detailed points ... the sooner we can get down to genuine debate rather than some of the shadow boxing that occurs in advance."